Time to Give Back

Greg Swanson has spent 37 years helping the Moline water utility excel. Now he does his part to encourage young people to enter a rewarding profession.
Time to Give Back
Greg Swanson, utilities general manager in Moline, Ill., is a mentor to his team and a long-time contributor to industry associations. The Illinois Section AWWA named him Water Professional of the Year for 2013.

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As general manager of utilities for the City of Moline, Ill., Greg Swanson works hard to promote the water treatment industry and its professional organizations, while helping those who wish to follow him into a rewarding career. He has found satisfaction in developing his talents over the past 37 years, while mentoring others.

“I’m a grassroots kind of guy, but when I stumbled upon the water industry, I found it so interesting, and it allowed me to develop innate skills and abilities I didn’t know I had, from electromechanical troubleshooting to leadership,” he says.

Before being hired at 20 for his first water treatment job, Swanson attended college for a while. He enjoyed playing the sitar (and still does). “Until I found my calling in the water business, I wanted to be a hippie and play music,” he says. “A friend worked for Moline in the water department and suggested I apply. At the time, I was a farm hand at an Arabian horse farm, but I took his advice.”

He didn’t get the job at first. “I got a haircut and got rid of my ponytail, and asked again if they would give me a try,” he recalls. “It was a jack-of-all-trades job with some maintenance. They made a utility man out of me.”

A year after he came on board, Swanson was promoted to an operations, maintenance and distribution position at the 12 mgd Moline water plant. He later became lead man, was promoted to plant manager in 1991, and became utilities general manager in 2001. For the last five years he has overseen the water and wastewater sides of the city utilities.

Continuing to grow

After his first promotion at the Moline plant, Swanson discovered that he had much to learn. It was a challenge to treat the highly variable Mississippi River source water and operate the lime softening technology. “I used a combination of hands-on experience, networking with other water professionals, formal coursework and involvement with the Illinois section of AWWA to grow my knowledge and skill,” he says. “Lots of really great people helped me along the way.”

His mentors included the city’s previous water general managers, Gene Marquardt, Lloyd Grantz and Rob Schab. Swanson believes his experience carries an important message for other water operators. “If you are dedicated and work hard, keep an open mind and take advantage of various opportunities to grow your knowledge and skill, today’s water operator can become tomorrow’s water utility manager. My professional growth continues to this day, which is one of the many reasons I love my job.”

He has seen many changes at the Moline treatment plant. One of his greatest challenges was as project manager for a $21 million plant upgrade that spanned 15 years and addressed a host of issues, including aging treatment equipment, an outdated electrical system and lack of central control.

The upgrade included replacing problematic clarifiers with ClariCone clarification systems (CB&I), and adding an administration building with laboratory, training room, geographic information system (GIS) and records storage. “People don’t like change, so I had to get buy-in from plant staff,” he says. “We wanted technology to help operators do a better job.

“Before the upgrade, we had to manually start the distribution pumps, and the chemicals came in bags, buckets and barrels rather than in bulk. We wanted the benefit of automation, but a computer can’t take the place of a good operator. They know the plant’s sights, smells and sounds. You have to marry the technology with the operators’ experience and skill.”

Treating river water

Commissioned in 2001, the new plant is better suited for treating Mississippi river water:

The two 7 mgd helical upflow ClariCone solids contact clarifiers improved water softening and turbidity performance. Reconfiguration and reuse of existing clarifiers allows pretreatment of river water before the ClariCone systems during especially adverse river conditions. Conversion from liquid chlorine to sodium hypochlorite disinfection improved safety, as did new space-saving bulk chemical storage facilities.

River water enters the intake, where a small dose of potassium permanganate is added to control zebra mussels and oxidize organics. The water passes through screens that remove aquatic life and debris. Powdered activated carbon is added to remove taste, odor and chemical pollutants. Next, chlorine and ammonia (chloramines) are added as the water is pumped to the treatment plant.

The water flows into the cone-shaped clarifiers, where ferric sulfate, lime and polymers are added. Here, the water is also softened with lime to remove nearly half of the calcium and magnesium. Next, it flows to recarbonation basins for pH adjustment; a small dose of phosphate is also added to improve filtration.

Clarified and stabilized water passes through dual-media filters, then to underground reservoirs where additional chlorine and phosphate are added, along with fluoride. The plant produces water, with turbidity typically about 0.06 NTU (the limit is 1.0). TOC removal averages about 50 percent, and finished water total trihalomethane (TTHM) averages 13 ppb.

Floods and droughts

Things at the treatment plant aren’t always routine. A 100-year flood in 1993 presented Swanson and his staff with a “monumental challenge,” even though they managed to keep the water flowing. “The plant was completely surrounded by the Mississippi River for an extended period, and plant staff used mountains of sand bags, numerous pumps and raw tenacity to hold back the raging river,” recalls Swanson.

A drought in 2012 changed the character of the river water: algae blooms caused taste and odor problems. “We had enough water, but the temperature rose and so did organic levels,” says Swanson. “We had to change the chemistry by adjusting our coagulation process and adding more powdered activated carbon.”

The plant upgrade also created a treatment challenge: “During spring 2005, we were trying to treat the cold water runoff melt water. The new clarifiers operated much differently than our old clarifiers, so we had great trouble achieving turbidity control.”

That challenge was compounded by break-in problems with new equipment, contractor errors and SCADA system bugs.

“The plant manager [Dave Owens] and I lived at the plant for two weeks. We would go home and sleep for a few hours and then go back. Working with the plant operators as a team, and networking with other water plants, we used a systematic approach to work through various problems. You can be the brightest and most technically competent, but you have to communicate, cooperate and be accountable. My staff did that.”

An open door

Swanson holds a Class A Public Water Supply license and works with 11 operations staff members at the water plant:

  • Dave Owens, plant manager (Class A, 21 years at the plant)
  • Barry Kahl, operations and maintenance specialist (Class A, 16.5 years)
  • Bob Bohannon, chemist (Class A, six years)
  • Robin Markle, lab technician (five years)
  • George Fellows (30.5 years), Bruce Eaker (17.5 years), Randy Oetgen (14.5 years) and Tom House (Class A, four years), operators
  • Scott VanHoutte (Class C, 21.5 years), Jon Kunzle (Class A, 22 years) and Barry Buckholtz (Class A, six years), mechanic operators

The facility runs around the clock, with one operator on duty at all times. The mechanic operators perform maintenance and fill in for operators as needed. “We made significant staffing changes after the plant upgrade,” says Swanson. “We used to have two operators on duty at all times. We created jobs on the distribution side for the displaced operators, and it took a lot of work to get through this.

“My door is always open. Water is about people. I savor that human connection, and it makes my work so enjoyable. We really have a good group of operators who take on a lot of responsibility – the treatment process, pumping operation and all public works calls. We also conduct 15 to 20 plant tours a year for grade school to graduate students, professional associations and individuals.” 

Picking a winner

Swanson’s performance at Moline and his service to the industry have earned recognition. He won Surface Water Operator of the Year in 2000 from the Illinois Potable Water Supply Operators Association. In 2013, he received the Water Professional of the Year Award and a Youth Outreach Award from the Illinois Section of AWWA.

His involvement with ISAWWA includes serving on the board and various committees and writing articles for the online newsletter. Youth outreach is near and dear to his heart: “This is one area that needs to grow more. We have been silent, and unless we engage the public and our youth, how will we meet the industry’s future challenges?

“I am retirement age now, and 60 percent of operators and managers will be retiring soon. This will present a huge opportunity for young people looking for a truly amazing career path that is mentally rewarding and physically challenging.” Swanson is helping ISAWWA develop a young professionals program. He also sponsors University of Illinois students for ISAWWA memberships: “By joining, students can network with water industry professionals as they get ready to transition from school to real world.”

Looking ahead

Swanson looks forward to continuing his work at the plant and in professional organizations. He’s working on a project to add a UV disinfection system for filter effluent, since a study of the river water showed high Cryptosporidium levels. “The project is challenging on a technical and regulatory level, so I want to see that through,” he says. “It should be online by summer 2015.”

Today, his greatest satisfaction is giving back: “We have a very aggressive outreach program, including a student art contest as part of our annual water quality report. Many plant teams feel they can’t afford to offer tours or interact with the public because of security concerns and work demands. I believe plants must offer tours and interact with the public. Water is grossly under-appreciated and unvalued in our country. Part of the plant operator’s job is to elevate the public’s understanding and appreciation.”

Although outreach requires time and energy, Swanson feels the effort is worth it. “Plant visitors walk away saying, ‘Wow, this facility is incredible. I had no idea how much effort is involved with my drinking water. I’ll never complain about my water bill again!’ ”

His advice to those seeking a career in water treatment: “Reach out to professional organizations and the water utilities in your area. Knock on doors. As Thoreau said, ‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.’”

Swanson should know. His original goal as a 20-year-old turned into a lifelong passion: “I sit here and I look at the river and the city, and I know that what we do is touching people’s lives. I never get bored and I’m always rewarded.”


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